By LUIS ANDRES HENAO
ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — Right before kickoff, the plasma TV’s were still tuned to a tennis match on mute instead of the Barcelona game at a nearly empty bar owned by Lionel Messi’s family in his Argentina hometown. The only clue at the bar were some photos of Messi. No one seemed to care about the game until a couple walked in hurriedly and asked a waiter to change the channel. The college students from Germany had saved for months to travel on a pilgrimage to their idol’s native city. By this point they were disappointed: they had seen no Messi statues, plaques or museums. Nothing.
“It seems like I feel more for Messi than Rosarinos,” Oshin Gharibi, 32, said as he watched the match next to his girlfriend, Lena Wagner, 23. She wore a Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi’s number 10 on the back. “Messi is such a big star from such a small place,” Gharibi said. “How can you not give him the recognition that he deserves?” It’s a mystery that confounds many. Cristiano Ronaldo has an airport named after him on his Portuguese home island of Madeira; Pele has his museum in his Brazilian native city of Santos; even Rocky Balboa – a fictional boxer- has been paid homage with a statue in Philadelphia. So why does Rosario seem to have an ambivalent relationship with the world’s most famous footballer?
Many here seem to come back to the same theories: a soccer-mad city divided by the rivalry of its two beloved clubs; the comparisons to Diego Maradona; and the idea that anything but winning is worthless. In a decade of winning trophies for Barcelona, the best player of his generation has yet to deliver a World Cup for Argentina – as Maradona did in 1986. Russia might be the last chance for Messi, who will turn 31 during the tournament. Rosario, a river port and Argentina’s third-largest city is located about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. It’s best known for being the country’s agricultural hub, the hometown of revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and a talent factory for some of Argentina’s best footballers and coaches. But for Rosarinos only two clubs matter: Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys, its eternal rival and Messi’s childhood club.
“You breathe football everywhere in Rosario, but, curiously, the air doesn’t smell of Messi,” author Guillem Balague writes in “Messi,” the official biography. Everybody seems to have a story about Messi, but “the city does not seem to want to gloat. It’s almost as if it is considered vulgar to have his face posted everywhere,” Balague says. But “when you ask him what his favorite memories are, he is in no doubt. ‘My home, my neighborhood, where I was born.'” In the working-class neighborhood of La Bajada, neighbors greet each other by name and kids ride bikes on narrow streets. As they walk up to the rusty gate of Messi’s childhood home, the German tourists can hardly contain their joy.
“We could have traveled to a beach in Barcelona, Thailand or Australia, but we came here,” Wagner said. “It’s worth it because we get to see the places where he grew up.” Messi is strongly connected to Rosario. His accent is unchanged, even though he left the city 18 years ago. He returns often and last year, he married his childhood sweetheart in the city. “I don’t think it’s something against Messi, but perhaps something cultural that we have to evaluate and rethink about … people who perhaps deserve more recognition,” said Sandro Alzugaray, a sculptor. In his atelier, he keeps a scale model of a Messi statue. He presented the plan to city officials four years ago and it has yet to receive approval.
Messi was born a year after Maradona led Argentina to the World Cup trophy in 1986. But he has faced comparisons to the former Argentine captain throughout his life. “For us…who took care of him, it hurts to hear the criticism, the comparisons to Maradona,” said Andrea Liliana Sosa, one of Messi’s former teachers. A mural of a young Messi clad in the red-and-black colors of Newell’s features at the club’s youth sporting complex. It’s the only sign that the five-time FIFA world player of the year was a standout player here as a child. “I think we’re not using the marketing correctly,” said Gustavo Pereira, a Newell’s youth division coach.
Perhaps Rosarinos care so much about Messi’s privacy because they want him to keep coming back. “When people ask me about a Messi tourist tour, it pains me,” said Hector De Benedictis, Rosario’s Tourism Secretariat. In his hand, he held copies for a Messi tour that his office has tried to launch twice. But the Messi family rejected the proposal because of privacy concerns. “It’s a question of ethics.”